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Speed Racer

May 9, 2008  |  11:05am
Speed Racer

Release Date: May 9
Director: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Writer: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Cinematographer: David Tattersall
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Matthew Fox, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman
Studio/Run Time: Warner Bros., 129 mins.

In the first film written and directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski since they wrapped their Matrix trilogy in 2003, the main character — a young man whose first name is Speed and last name is Racer — loves to drive. Quickly. It runs in his family, too. Pops Racer builds fast cars, Mom Racer gives pep talks and Rex Racer, his beloved older brother, holds some kind of racing record. Young Speed aims to follow in his brother's footsteps, except for the part where Rex got involved with some unsavory characters and was mysteriously killed while racing through a tunnel.

Speed Racer's characters are played by real, live actors—Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Matthew Fox—who work in a landscape of primary colors and computer-generated sparkles. But their organic bodies aren't just green-screened atop fancy backgrounds, they're integrated seamlessly into a candy-apple world that is, at times, totally animated.

If the approximate physics don’t do it, the plot alone is enough to snap your neck, not because the story is complicated, but because it's told through delirious whip pans that defy time as easily as the cars defy gravity. The film jumps from present to past and back again so quickly that the timelines seem to merge. In one scene, Speed races against a virtual image of his deceased older brother, but this fact will be lost on those who blink at the wrong time and miss a telling shot of the scoreboard.

Of course, we should expect things to be zippy in a movie called Speed Racer. The contests themselves are more confusing than exciting, but in quick, microscopic flashes the film does shine, like when a car explodes in a ball of fire and its driver is ejected into a sphere of foam that rolls safely away. Neat.

But it's hard to fill two hours when your best ideas only last a few seconds apiece, and the shortfall of ingenuity causes the worst possible result: boredom. Cranking the volume up to 11 works until it's merely numbing, and even the few quiet moments—like a scene in the snowy mountains—seem loaded and cocked and ready to whoosh. Eventually those gently falling snowflakes turn into thick, white streaks, like the stars in the Millennium Falcon's jump to hyperspace. The film's slow middle may lose the 7-year-olds that it clearly covets, though an insufferable kid and his chimpanzee make frequent appearances, shocking youngsters back to consciousness like a slapstick defibrillator. But for those of us a bit older, any amount of chimp, like asbestos, is too much.

Even though a strong nuclear family stands proudly at the center of the story, Speed Racer isn't so much wholesome as wholesome-ish. Shit makes two appearances, one verbal and one literal, the former prominently bleeped, the latter hurled at a bad guy by said chimp. Ish, indeed. At 20 minutes, Speed Racer might have been a retro-futuristic hoot, but at 129 it requires five times too much hooting. It’s a sugar cereal served for six meals straight. Enough, Speed Racer, enough.

Watch the trailer for Speed Racer:

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